BREAKING: Air Force Budget Proposal Includes F-15EX Buy, Big Plus-Ups for Space, Hypersonics

By Stew Magnuson
Hypersonic weapon concept art

Concept art: Raytheon

The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2020 budget proposal for the Air Force would see increases for most major weapon systems and includes the controversial plan to buy eight Boeing-built F-15X jet fighters.

The Air Force is requesting $165.6 billion for 2020, a $9.8 billion, or 6.3 percent increase over the previous enacted budget. That number includes both the baseline budget and overseas contingency operations accounts. It would add hundreds of new aircraft, a big boost to the space mission accounts and continued development of major programs such as the B-21 bomber.

The increase enables “growth in both readiness accounts as well as continuing steady increases in end strength, a renewed emphasis on infrastructure and recovery, and our ongoing focus to develop and field faster and smarter the advanced capabilities needed for a return to great power competition,” Maj. Gen. John Pletcher, deputy assistant secretary for budget in the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for financial management and comptroller, said during a press briefing March 12.

The increase would boost its aircraft inventory from 5,426 to 5,500 as the service embarks on a multi-year goal to reach 386 operational squadrons, 72 more than it deploys today. It also adds some 4,400 personnel to its end strength. However, the new budget does not add any additional squadrons.

The study on how to make it to 386 squadrons is ongoing and was occurring as the Air Force built its 2020 budget request, so it was too late to include them, Pletcher said. “That discussion will happen in subsequent years,” he added. He declined to speculate on whether new squadrons will be included in the 2021 request. This year’s briefing did not include any of the future years defense program numbers, which look five years out at planned acquisitions.

Pletcher also noted that the $165.6 billion request, as per Defense Department requirements for all the services, is under the Budget Control Act caps, should they remain in place this year.

The budget request asks for eight new F-15EX jet fighters, the first of a planned buy of more than 80 over the next five years. The idea to acquire updated versions of the F-15 to replace older C/D models is reportedly not supported by Air Force officials. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan is a former Boeing executive, which has brought up questions of whether he had a hand in the decision, an allegation he has denied. The proposal drops the number of Lockheed Martin-built F-35As to be acquired from 56 in fiscal year 2019 to 48 in 2020.

Pundits have weighed in on both sides of the issue with critics maintaining that the Air Force should proceed with buying only fifth-generation F-35 joint strike fighters rather than investing in the fourth-generation aircraft. Supporters have said the modernized F-15X would only be for missions such as coastal defense and would free up JSF squadrons for other missions.

Dan Grazier, a military fellow at the Project on Government Oversight, said he finds it curious that at a time when the F-35 is reaching a culmination point in its development, the Pentagon is suddenly buying F-15s. “That kind of tells me that there are some people with the power to make decisions who don’t have full confidence in the F-35 and its abilities,” he said in an interview.

The cost of the two aircraft are now roughly equivalent, he said. The F-15 buy is taking money away from the F-35 program because defense officials are cutting the numbers of the joint strike fighters, he noted. “It just seems like a very odd time to do that. Maybe six years ago, it would have been a different story. But here in 2019, I think that is very telling.”

The budget proposal also includes $72 million to stand up a U.S. Space Force headquarters, which includes billets for 160 personnel. As for other space programs, the proposal includes $463 million in funding for one GPS III follow-on satellite, plus development of a Next-Gen Overhead Persistent Infrared missile warning satellite.

The Air Force anticipates procuring four national security launches from private sector providers, down one from 2019. Overall, the request for Air Force space programs is $13.8 billion, 17 percent more than 2019’s $11.8 billion. Most of the growth is attributable to research and development, said Carolyn Gleason, deputy for budget in the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for financial management and comptroller.

Other numbers going down include 12 new Boeing-built KC-46A refueling tankers, down three from the 15 enacted in 2019. The program has been plagued by delays. Pletcher said Congress added three extra tankers in a previous budget, so 12 is in keeping with its average yearly procurement. The Air Force is also cutting MQ-9A Reaper remotely piloted aircraft to 12, half of the 24 in 2019. It is built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems.

Also taking a hit are some research-and-development accounts. Basic and applied research is down to $1.9 billion from the $2.1 billion enacted in 2019 and advanced technology development is down to $80 million from last fiscal year’s $90 million. The research, development, test and evaluation account, however, is up to $35.4 billion, from $30.9 billion in 2019.

The RDT&E account includes funds to continue OC-X light attack aircraft demonstrations, which officials decided last year to continue and expand rather than proceeding with an acquisition program. Pletcher said there is $35 million requested in the budget to expand the light-attack experiments to unmanned systems, rotary-wing and turbo-prop aircraft. The program is focused on what allies need in terms of a light attack aircraft and there will be a study on their requirements, he added.

“The decision the Air Force had to make this year was essentially, 'Are we ready to go to a program of record given what we had learned up to this point?’ … We just didn’t feel comfortable that we had the right mix of capabilities that was going to attract the partners and allies that we needed,” Pletcher said. There are procurement dollars in the out years for the aircraft should the experiments be successful, he added.

Hypersonics R&D also gets an increase to $576 million, up from $509 million. Developing weapons that reach speeds higher than Mach 5 has been called a top development priority in the Defense Department as rivals Russia and China continue to invest heavily in the technology. Gleason said the Air Force’s goal is an initial operating capability by fiscal year 2022. There is also $713 million for the development of the long-range stand-off weapon to replace the air-launched cruise missile.

Developmental programs such as the T-X jet fighter trainer — awarded last year to Boeing — and Northrup Grumman’s B-21 long-range bomber continue to receive robust funding at $348 million and $3 billion, respectively. While details of the B-21 budget are classified, the program is on track and entering the manufacturing design phase, Gleason said. The other part of the Air Force’s nuclear strategic platforms, the Minuteman III replacement, also known as the ground-based strategic deterrent, would receive $570 million.

There is also a $570 million pot of money being proposed to find new technologies for the “next-generation air dominance family of systems” to close air-superiority gaps, Gleason said. Details of that program are classified.

Topics: Acquisition, Air Force News, Air Power, Budget, Defense Department

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